“Emma?” Thanatos gasped, his eyes bulging. “Son of a bi—”
“I found my way out,” she interrupted. “Did you know, you cowardly god, that the River Styx flows through many worlds? Different, but the same. You left me with no sacrifices, no meat, nothing to feed the Goddess. I had to hide inside this shell, and step by step, make my way to you. I have been here for years, unable to get to you, unable to find you. I washed up on the shores of that river like a piece of garbage. Luckily, Amie found me and brought me here. Imagine my glee when I discovered this was the home of another goddess, and not just any goddess, but your sister! I have been using these people to sacrifice and eat, to grow strong again. I will get back to my world, and I will take you with me!”
Thanatos shook his head. I stood perplexed, watching as Amie moved closer, inch by inch. Her movements were erratic, slow one moment and then so fast my eyes barely caught it. No matter what was going on around her, her eyes remained locked on me. Every time I moved, she countered, so I began to pace back and forth along the wall. I watched as she shifted her body to keep me in full sight. My wings flared wide, and my power mantled about me. I asked into the quiet of the room, “What have you done to my people? What have you done to my house?”
The Emma doll remained fixated on Thanatos, but she answered, “They are not yours any longer, and soon you will be mine as well. Just like in my world. I will own you, and you will do what I say. You will be my friend! These mortals, even though they are of the Underworld, they are still so weak. They do not last under my spells, and they do not become strong. They just die!”
I looked over the group here and knew that she was right. There were not nearly enough, and I couldn’t sense any more in the house. I glanced at Thanatos, and he nodded, able to feel the unreaped souls that filled my home. Rage ignited in me, along with anger and sorrow. “You will pay for this, you rotten little beast.”
“Come play, Nemesis,” Amie said in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. “Don’t you want to play with me and my dolly?”
I love my little dolly, sweet;
She’s my best and only friend.
I bring her other kids to meet
But, they don’t come back again.
I suppose they just don’t like me,
Though, I can’t imagine why.
We’re both as sweet as we can be,
‘Cept when someone makes me cry.
My dolly doesn’t like me sad;
That is when she’s not so nice,
Bad things happen when she’s mad,
So, it’s best that you think twice.
Amie sang the poem, her expression never shifting from the demonic sneer. It was so at odds with the sweet, pure tones of her voice that it made my skin crawl.
“Emma, you will not hurt Nemesis, this is between you and me.” Thanatos eyed the servants still kneeling on the floor. I could hear the actual fear and nervousness in his tone, and that terrified me more than anything.
Emma’s laugh was a tinkling sound. “You are so concerned with your sister now, you scaredy-cat god. Did you tell her how you killed her in my world? Did you tell her how you took that scythe and chopped her right in two? You didn’t even hesitate, just left her dead on the floor. You stepped over her body and left her there. You killed your sister and your mother and all the other gods as well! You ripped them apart! Did you tell her, Thanatos? Did you?”
I glanced at Thanatos and could see by the grim set of his jaw and the tension in his body that whatever was in that doll spoke true. But I knew my brother, my faith and trust in him was absolute. If he had raised arms against me, any version of me, I was confident the action had been warranted and he had no choice. I knew it would have cost him dearly to destroy any facsimile of me.
“Emma, be a good girl. You do not have to do this. I can help you. You can be at peace,” Thanatos said, his tone strong but comforting.
Emma laughed, the doll’s entire body shaking with her mirth. “You stupid coward god! I do not want to be at peace! I want to destroy and play! I was fine and happy until you came and took all my friends! I want new friends, and I will start with you!”
With the last word, shadow tentacles whipped from the ceiling, grabbed Thanatos’ ankles, and pulled him towards the center of the vortex. Amie launched herself at me, her mouth opening to reveal sharp conical teeth. I reached out and caught her by the throat as I focused on Thanatos. He was twisting and slashing to cut through the darkness. No way was I going to allow this beast to use the shadows against me in my domain. I gripped them tightly with my power, not asking as I normally did, but commanding this time. They fought my hold much as Amie did, twisting and scratching, struggling to get free. I tightened my power around them, my wings flaring and my eyes going black as I forced the tentacles to release Thanatos.
Emma screamed, and it was unnerving the amount of sound that came out of the doll. Her eyes blazed and focused intently on Thanatos as he retreated to my side, Amie still fighting in my grip. I tipped my head towards him, watching Emma rage, kicking and throwing a tantrum on her makeshift throne. “Are Amie and the others dead, Thano? What is this? What is going on?”
He shook his head. “They are not dead, not yet anyway. A few of them are very close, and once she pulls her power, they will probably die. This is an old magic, Nem. An otherworld witch goddess’ magic trapped in what remains of a sad and tortured child. I have fought her before and failed in reaping that soul. She is very powerful. Or she was in her world. She feels less so here. That may be all we have going for us.”
Emma spun around, seeming to remember that we were still there. She pointed and screamed, “Get them! Bring them to me. I want to go home!” The Emma doll jumped up and down on the seat of the chair, her fury radiating off of her in black slithering whips, her porcelain features cracking and oozing dark crimson.
All thirty of the remaining household staff shuffled stiffly to their feet, turning in unison to glare at us. They bared sharp teeth and lunged. I turned, wrapping my wings around both Thanatos and the still-struggling Amie, and ported us to the second floor. I ran down the hallway, intending to get Amie somewhere safe so that Than and I could deal with the horde that was already ascending the wide central staircase.
Stopping at the first set of living quarters, I threw the door open and took three steps inside before my mind registered the horror of this place. The darkened room was ravaged, the furniture and everything within lay in ruins. The only thing that was still intact was a cradle. Even in madness, whatever had raged in here would not, could not, harm what lay inside. It was neglect that had done the damage to that innocent.
Thanatos stopped as if he had slammed into a wall. His face went stark, his obsidian eyes focused on something that I could not see. He carefully leaned his scythe against the wall and walked forward, holding out his arms. I backed out of the room and opened the next door I came to. Tossing Amie inside, I slammed it shut, locking her on the other side as she launched herself at me again.
I spun and rushed back to Thanatos. Stopping in the doorway, I stood transfixed by the sorrow and the beauty. He cradled a small golden light in his arms, his face transformed by the purity of it. The glow dimmed, the tiny young soul absorbed into his safekeeping until he could release it to Charon. I placed a hand on my forehead and turned, my wings flaring wide as the first of the servants reached me. None of them would enter and this would stop here.
Emma’s laughter pealed through the house, the walls vibrating with it. The sound spurred my attackers forward, leaving bloody footprints in their wake. I could not kill these people. Not only were they mine, but this many deaths in such proximity would take Thanatos down. They forced me back, biting and clawing at my flesh, the black ichor streaked my skin and sparked power into the air. I hissed and began knocking them out as quickly as I could. I was as careful as possible with their sick and weakened bodies.
Thanatos came up behind me as I pushed another man back, his broken nails scraping at my skin. “A little help here, Thano?”
I felt the scythe slice through time and space, his voice calm at my back. “Push them through, Nem. They will be safe here until we can break her hold on them.” Without question, I began booting people through the rift. I tripped, shoved, and threw while Thanatos held it open.
Emma’s laughter ceased. There was a moment of shocked silence as she felt the beings she controlled disappear, and then her enraged shriek echoed through the house, rattling the very foundations of it.
“You took my friends! Again!!”
Then all stopped, everything went silent, and the house stood still. Amie ceased throwing herself against the door. Thanatos and I froze. One quick glance at each other and we ran, flinging our wings wide as we launched ourselves over the railing and dropped to the first floor. Running back to the main hall, we crashed to a stop in the doorway. The green and black vortex swirled above, tentacles forming and fading as we watched, shadowy arms reaching into the room as if sensing us.
The throne sat empty and silence reigned, but not a peaceful one. This was a false calm filled with anticipation. Thanatos and I stepped into the room, bending low to look beneath furniture and rubble, keeping to the edges of the hall.
The sound of a childish giggle and the patter of small feet running through the house snapped both of us upright. We maneuvered until we were back to back, the feathers of our wings barely touching. Thanatos held his scythe ready across his body, and my sword was a familiar weight in my hand, my power rimming its ghostly edge. We turned, careful to remain away from the center of the room and the shadowy tentacles that writhed and searched.
I sent my power sweeping through the house. This was my home, and I was taking it back. No little demon doll was going to claim what was mine.
I slammed the doors around the room, one after another until only the main entrance remained open. Thanatos and I then turned to face it. I tapped into the network of the house and the power of the land that it sat on. It had been mine for eons and responded to my touch, reluctant and unsure at first, but then more willing as it recognized my magic. My power wafted off my skin, my sword, my feathers, seeping into the very structure of the house and connecting with it. Thanatos looked at me and took up a defensive position in front of me, my ability to react hampered by the outpouring of my magic, surging into the stone, the wood, and the land.
My voice was a low unearthly growl as I commanded, “Bring her to me now!”
The one remaining door slammed shut, and the ceiling parted, dropping the little horror in front of us. The porcelain had cracked and broken off in pieces, revealing the putrid mass beneath. Its features both frozen and yet somehow malleable, menace, hunger, and evil poured off this creature. Its desire was so great to claim him that the doll zeroed in on Thanatos, barely seeming to register me. It launched itself in a fury of tentacles, their whip-like forms barely within this existence. I stepped in front of him and caught the thing by its head, my hand wrapping over its face.
The doll screeched and fought my hold, tentacles wrapping about my hand and forearm, dark green streaks forming along my skin where they attached themselves. The magic contained within Emma was ancient and familiar, yet it held a foreignness that made it clear it was not wholly of this world. I latched onto the bit that belonged to the witch queen, the hot gold ichor that had become contaminated power, filled with rage, hatred, and despair at a life stolen. It was the catalyst that had created this monster. The final act of vengeance cast by extraordinary primal magic. But vengeance belonged to me. I was the source and balance of it. I pulled at it, plucking at the abscessed kernel of goodness walled off from the corrupted soul of the little girl.
The power that had been formed over centuries battered at my own as Emma let out a piercing shriek. My body shuddered as I absorbed this darkness, runes forming along my arm as I made it a part of myself, the pain of it making me gasp and the world tilt. I do not know where the witch queen of that realm had found this ancient language of power, but there it was, and as I made it my own, it tried to destroy me. If I gave in to it, it would claim me much as it had her, and Chaos help us then. Look at the destruction it had done in the soul of a mortal girl. Imagine what it would do in me. I threw my head back and screamed, feeling the black ichor drip from my eyes and nose. The runes crawled up my arm as the doll slowly went limp in my grip.
I shook and gasped for air. I collapsed to my knees, crushing the doll beneath my hand. Looking up, Thanatos hovered protectively over me, his wing resting over my back, his gaze focused on a spot directly in front of me.
“Emma?” he whispered.
He reached out with his other hand, and I saw the glow come into focus. The young girl, thin and sickly looking, her eyes wide as she looked up at him. Her soul appeared whole but pitted with specks of the green corruption.
I struggled to digest the foreign power dancing through my magic as I looked up at the vortex in my ceiling. Pushing against it, I forced the beast back through the hole and into its own realm. Maybe someday we would take care of that, but today it needed to return to its own time and space. My head dropped back as the words on my skin solidified and then coalesced into a dark mass. I focused my will, pushing against it experimentally, and felt it give beneath my mental touch. I concentrated and formed it into a stylized dragon over my left shoulder.
Thanatos reached out and took Emma by the hand, porting us all to the shores of the River Lethe. He assumed his deified form and picked her up in skeletal arms, walking into the eddies of the powerful current. He lowered the glowing soul into the silvery water. The waves churned and bubbled, washing away the taint of the corruption. The river absorbed the memories and freed her of their burden. Thanatos cradled Emma in his arms as he lifted her out, her soul now glowing pristine and bright. She smiled weakly and stroked his cheek.
Thanatos smiled back, his expression tender. “Come, child, it is time you rest.” Slowly, gently, he dipped her beneath the waves and let the river take her, knowing she would find her way to the Styx and Charon.
He looked back at me as she disappeared, and I marveled anew at the power of him. I flopped back onto the rocks. Scratching absently at the new shadow on my shoulder, I decided to just rest there for a bit. I would go home and clean up the mess later.